Date: March 12 - 13
Location: Chaska, MN
Challenge: Smoking a brisket and pork shoulder
This weekend cookout was unlike any other we had experienced. The challenge: smoke 9.3 pounds of brisket and 6.4 pounds of pork shoulder over 12 to 16 hours. To successfully conquer this challenge would require a combination of experience and perseverance. Why perseverance? The three factors experienced pit masters dread the most are cold, precipitation, and wind. We encountered the terrible triad. The air temperature hovered between 15 and 19, but with sustained winds between 25 and 35 mph, we faced wind chills between -10 and 0, intermittent snow flurries, and one treacherous ice patch.
Wind and cold weather require more charcoal, and more charcoal means more time spent outside. It also required the construction of a makeshift wind screen that could shelter the smoker and withstand the unrelenting gusts.
A typical smoke of this duration consumes about 30 pounds of charcoal. We poured over 60 pounds of Kingsford Competition charcoal, 6 gallons of water, and blocks of oak (3), cherry (2), and hickory (1) into the Weber bullet on our way to some of the best smoked meat that barbeque expert David Silvestain has ever produced. To provide late night sustenance, we found comfort in Surly Furious, Surly Abrasive, Elmer T. Lee Kentucky-straight bourbon, and our celebration dinner honored a fine 2002 Reserve Cabernet from Elyse. Saturday morning focus came compliments of two piping hot almond/gingerbread lattes. Saturday afternoon also produced victories for our respective Alma Maters, the University of Florida Gators and the University of Dayton Flyers, propelling each to their conference championship!
If this is something you have never experienced, you should re-examine what wakes you up in the morning. Pursuing the creation of truly world-class dishes with great friends while conquering the some of the worst conditions that Mother Nature can bring makes for one highly recommended life experience!
At its core, this smoke transforms two low-class, blue-collar meats into culinary delights that would rival the best NY strips or filet mignons. Brisket comes from core of the steer near the stomach, but it uniquely embodies the pure taste of beef. As you might imagine, this does not have much fat in the meat itself, but a great layer fat covers it. The rear hips of the pig produce the pork shoulder. Fat permeates this meat, which leads to a naturally delicious meat. However both require long, slow heat to soften them.
The marathon started on Thursday with the preparation of the rubs. David also carefully selected the proper cuts from the local meat shop. A good brisket has an even layer of fat across the top. In the Northern part of the US, it is exceptionally difficult to find a brisket with the Point on it. The point produces outstanding chopped barbeque and adds an excellent fat rendering source to the meat, but since butchers here cut them off, we didn't have the point. Pork shoulder (aka Boston Butt, Pork Butt) requires less focus, but it is important to look for bright white fat and minimal exposure of the shoulder bone (never use boneless shoulder).
We gathered at David's home at 7:00 on Friday night and started right in. David handled all of the cooking and I was the chronicler. The details of the cook are below, but let’s cover the main phases.
Each meat receives a pasting first, and then the rub. For the brisket David mixed brown sugar, dijon mustard, and other spices. The pork shoulder received pure French’s mustard. David applied the pastes by hand and in general it is a pretty messy operation.
I sensed that the rub is the more important piece of these two additions. A rub should taste good before it goes on; it isn’t going to improve once it’s on the meat. Granted it should be intense and bold, but good also. As with the pastes, David concocted two different rubs. The pork shoulder contained a good bit of salt. For the brisket a salt-dense rub would overpower the meat given the large surface area of the meat. Both shared a nice tang with a list of ingredients probably numbering 15 each. (Listing these could potentially damage the friendship I have with David. It’s almost like listing the formula for Coke, which in my opinion shouldn’t be as nearly closely guarded as the formula for Coke Zero, or even Cherry Coke Zero, but those are different matters for different times.)
Once David finished bathing the meats in their pastes and rubs, they cured for 2 hours in the fridge (enter the Surly and other late night libations).
For those smoking virgins out there, it takes about 30 minutes in normal weather to get the smoker fired up. In weather like this, it took us about an hour, but once it reached 225, it stayed put (good smoker, thanks to the folks at Weber who invented the Smoky Mountain Cooker). Both cuts of meat went into the smoker straight from the fridge to maximize exposure to the smoke when the meat is below 140 degrees and can best absorb smoke.
This creates the much sought after smoke ring (the beautiful pink rim just inside the outside surface of smoked meat - see final results below). Throughout the night, the cold brought the temperature down and the coals needed some nudging (and more charcoal) to keep it at our ideal 225 zone. David manned the ship while I got some sleep, but by 7:00 a.m. we were both back at it watching over the effort.
Before partaking of the final results, David spent the afternoon simmering some sauces. Most traditional barbeque sauce is a Kansas City style. These bring cloying sweetness, but that’s not what adorns either of these meats the best. David went with two, one for each meat (There really isn’t anything this guy overlooks, which makes the end result that much more spectacular!) First – the Texas-style red sauce, which would work on either meat, but is best on the brisket. Spicy heat and a mild vinegar taste best describe this delicious topping. The Carolina-style golden mustard sauce emerged as my favorite. It leads with a sharp mustard taste and also brings the vinegar and some heat. Personal preference allows it to work on either meat, I would only recommend it for the pork shoulder. Typical with David’s pursuit of perfection, each sauce received tender care on the stove Saturday afternoon. The red sauce simmered for four hours while the mustard sauce simmered for two.
(Editorial note: I asked about which Carolina it is when he says, Carolina-style. Much of the influence for Carolina sauces comes from North Carolina, and more so in the eastern part of the state for the vinegar-based sauces.)
Some 16 hours after lighting the coals, it was time to pull the meats off the smoker for a few hour rest in a warmed cooler. The rest period seals in the delicious juices and leaves the meat in perfect condition to carve and enjoy.
The balance of heat from the rub and sauces perfectly balanced the Malbec and big Cabernet we enjoyed with dinner. We reserved conversation for ooohs and aahhhs, but not much else. Too much of heaven sat on the kitchen counter waiting for us to gorge ourselves, and we honored the plate with several return trips. Fortunately David shared a great recipe for brisket-based breakfast tacos, which fit the bill perfectly on Sunday morning for some of the leftovers!
In David and Cori’s (his much better half) opinion, this ranked as one of their best, if not THE best, smoke they have ever completed. David and I spent time exploring why this was. Here’s the hypothesis: the extreme conditions kept the smoker from flaring and without a single flare, and thus a more consistent temperature cooking zone, it turned out brilliantly. Regardless of the cause, whatever came off that smokers fell nothing short of magical and I for one (literally one, not sure my wife wants to see me disappear on this all-night adventure on a monthly basis) can’t wait to do it again!
Cheers to a most successful smoke!
Photography Copyright Kyle Burkholder Photography